I crave my weekend nap. Never planned, I just put on socks, silently climb the stairs, and set up a nest of pillows and comforters where the family can't find me. 20 minutes and I'm ready to mosh with my girls to the sounds of Jerry was a Racecar Driver until 2am. Yesterday, during this bi-montly ritual, I awoke to three girls screaming in glee in my dining room (NOTE: I only have two kids and have no idea how the third appeared). Peaking around the corner, I could see Chloe holding a steak knife in her hand with pinkish-red fluid dripping from the blade down her arm. If you could peer inside my brain, all you would find is an endless loop of the opening scene to Halloween. Not cool. Very cool? Who knows, I couldn't think with my heart pounding. When Chloe spotted me, she screamed and her sister Raven asked, "Are you mad dad? We used an adult knife." This was said far too calmly from my future serial killer. And I could see why.
While napping, the three girls under 6 grabbed a watermelon, steak knife, and made their own lunch. My girls were incredibly proud that they made lunch without adults. This might have been the first time they did this without prodding. With crazy straws, they sucked the juice out. Dripping watermelon slices littered the table and carpet. White dresses stained, perfect for acting in a prom night death scene; quite the contrary when mom comes home to see how daddy handles the household.
According to the parent codebook passed on from one generation to the next and word of mouth, I am supposed to be upset. I am supposed to raise my voice. I am supposed to assert authority. However, I am a firm believer that context matters. And I was simply proud and happy, mirroring the brood.
What does a parent want to teach their kids? Sure, there is self-discipline, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, curiosity, and the ability to effectively manage difficult emotions. But there's also autonomy. Parents are no different than politicians when it comes to raising autonomous kids. They say all the right things in public.
Yep, me too, I don't hover over my kids.
Kids need to be given responsibility and make mistakes; thats part of growing up.
Arguments are pointless, let them learn the natural consequences of wearing a sweater on a 100 degree day.
I can't stand parents that tell kids what to say to their grandparents on the phone.
And so it goes while their actions rarely match the press release. But our family operates differently. We try to give our kids as much autonomy support as possible. They are going to fall off their bikes and bleed profusely. Someone is going to pull down their pants and show them a little pale ass when the teacher isn't looking. They are going to get ostracized and have to figure out how to bounce back and re-enter the social world. Nothing I can do about it. Except for one thing. I can teach them how to survive difficult life situations. And so instead of mindlessly reacting, I try to capitalize when they learned something valuable on their own.
I know what you're thinking. Things to do this summer: have a play date at the Kashdan household.
As a parent, it is anxiety provoking to support their autonomy. It means that they might get hurt just like us. It means they have to figure out how to handle situations that they have never been in before just like us. It means that they won't need us for everything. It means we are going to be an emotional mess ("oxytocin and my jd, put it in a cup and it looks like iced tea"). It means that our role has been changed from authoritarian leader to safe haven- where they can come back anytime to express their anxiety because it will be acknowledged, accepted, and when ready, they can take that anxiety and go off and explore the world again.
Sure, I explained that knives are dangerous. But I never stole their moment of mastery and pride to replace it with my fears and need for control. Try to get ready for these moments. Because in all honesty, you never will. And when they come, you will love them and want to share with everyone how you may have done at least one thing right as a parent....even though conventional thinkers will disagree.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who regularly give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees, and health professionals on well-being. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops related to this topic or others, contact me by going to toddkashdan.com